'So, what are you doing for iftar tomorrow?" I asked Khalid. It is the same question "we" - the group of single Muslims living away from our families - ask each other every day during Ramadan. "I don't know yet, but I panic about food. I like to plan ahead as I worry there will be no food when iftar time comes around," said Khalid, whose family lives in another emirate. I know exactly how he feels. Since my family is also in another country, there is no iftar meal ready for me when I come back from work. I have to plan ahead, which is tough sometimes given my hectic schedule.
"Well, we could try another hotel's iftar buffet tonight?" I suggested. We had already been to one hotel's special buffet. "Um? they are a bit pricey." Khalid's tone of voice implied that at between Dh160 to 180 per person, a hotel buffet every evening would quickly break his bank account as well as his fast. Mine too? "We can cook?" I suggested, and the idea made both of us groan, as we know we get too tired to cook by the time we have to break our fast. So now we have to come up with a creative idea each day, whether it is a buffet, or an order-and-pick-up meal, or taking turns to cook at home and invite other singles over - whatever it takes to break our fast.
"We also need to buy some of the low fat desserts, we are gaining too much weight," I added. It is not just singles who end up obsessing over food in Ramadan, it is everyone. Anyone who dared to go to the grocery stores the weekend just before the month of Ramadan started had to deal with massive crowds of customers, and many frayed tempers. It was a truly manic experience; you would have thought we were about to go to war and people were stocking up on their survival supplies. I just wanted some fresh bread but couldn't get through the crush of carts. Of course, the check outs were overwhelmed with impatient customers who kept on insisting they had only 10 items in their trolley when they joined the express lane. They didn't mention the stocks of items buried under and squeezed between those "10" items. But soon enough, it simmers down.
"You know, it is just not the same without family," said Khalid. I agreed - as would, I am sure, most of my circle of single friends. One of my fondest memories of Ramadan is coming home from school and smelling my mother's cooking in the kitchen and hearing the sound of the television in the living room where my father would be sitting watching. We all had shorter hours during Ramadan in those days and I used to get home at around 3pm.
My mother would make one of my favourite potato salads, and I loved standing alongside her watching her put it together, savouring the smells and the colours, taking it all in without tasting anything. Then, of course, our neighbours would join us for iftar and it would turn into a huge feast with desserts supplied by non-stop surprise visits by friends and family after iftar. Nowadays, more and more young people are away from their families due to work and education. In some ways, it is like being away from your family on Christmas and missing out on that delicious family dinner. So for a lot of us, Ramadan becomes a time of reflection. A reflection over what we are missing, and a time to give to others who are less fortunate - as well as those who are also alone and feeling a little homesick.
"It will be fine: one day I cook, one day you cook, OK?" I said to Khalid. So my friends and I created a schedule; though so far, I hate to admit, we have been too lazy to stick to it. But I am sure once we run out of money, we will be more diligent. Besides all the eating - and the talking about eating - we also end up watching and discussing the special Ramadan drama series and soap operas that are shown all through the night.
There is one in particular we like, the UAE produced Seraa aala al Remal (Conflict on the Sands) series based on the vision and poetry of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the Prime Minister and Vice President of UAE. "Now that is about a time when men were men," said my friend and colleague Rasha, who was watching the series with me at midnight. The drama is about desert tribes and their conflicts and daily lives: the good old days.
Having your family with you also makes it easier to go to the mosque and pray during the night, and to be more in touch with your spiritual side. You can't help but get a bit discouraged to go every night if you are alone and away from your family. Every aspect of Ramadan is family orientated and so it is tough on those away from their families. "So what are we doing tonight?" I asked my group of friends. "The same thing we do every night, worry ing about where we will be breaking our fast," laughed Khalid. It is so true.